Cambridge fixer-upper needs some TLC, but seller is highly motivated

Cambridge News Weekly reports the state is getting ready to try to sell the old Lechmere courthouse/jail, which has a few issues related to asbestos and some water damage.

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So now forty year old

So now forty year old buildings are "out-dated?" Isn't Boston City Hall older than that? Sell it, and rebuild at the old Filene's location. And this time, no "Greenway" please - bring back the Old Howard and the strippers. If nothing else, there would be a lot less crime going on at the location.

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Pathetic

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The building is a disaster. Its brutalist mass sticks out in the neighborhood like a giant sore. It's ugly. It's dysfunctional. It's plagued with internal problems. It's hostile to the surrounding streets.

If our state government had any courage or commitment, it would tear the damned thing down, and replace it with a modern courts facility capable of handling the load. That's what the Feds have been doing with their own crumbling concrete modernist courthouses, courtesy of the GSA's Design for Excellence program. Does it cost money? Sure, it does. But it also delivers real value. Instead, the state has dithered for the last decade, throwing good money after bad in a never-ending series of stopgap repairs, before finally giving up and walking away. Now, it's trying to sell the building even though it hasn't figured out where to put the courts or the jail on a longterm basis. If they sell this building, they won't be able to move back to Cambridge. The alternate, temporary sites are relatively inaccessible by mass transit, an important consideration for indigent defendants and litigants and their families. Does anyone really think we're better off with the courts relocating to Medford and Woburn?

Actually, yes. Tim Toomey (D-East Cambridge) wants to see the building torn down entirely. He's a neighborhood advocate who resents its impact on the area - indisputably negative - and would rather see the court relocate somewhere else.

So here's the really unfortunate part of the story. The court may go, but it sure sounds like the building will stay. And why? Because it's 22 stories tall, and hell will freeze over before Cambridge approves another structure of its size and scale. So it'll be worth it for some developer to come in, gut-renovate it to a hollow shell, and then fit it out for commercial use. Even though the city hates the building, the state says it can't afford it, and private clients would prefer almost anything else, a confluence of irresponsibility and stringent zoning means we're probably stuck with it.

The whole thing is entirely crazy. If it makes sense to have courts in Cambridge, we should foot the bill ourselves for replacing the building. And if it's going to be sold to a commercial developer, Cambridge would be better off allowing them to tear it down and start from scratch, waving the zoning rules in order to allow them to build to the same size and scale. If we're going to have a 22 story building there, why not make it a nice 22 story building?

::sigh::

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Tare Down

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That is only true if the building can be modified to some residential/commercial use. Thankfully I have never been in the jail but I would imagine, like the rest of the building, it is made of cement and divided into small compartments. It also has limited/no windows on the exterior. It may not be possible to reconfigure the building to a different use without practically tearing it down. You are probably right that the current zoning for that area would not allow a 22 story tower as of right, but considering the near by North Point development and other tallish buildings in the Leachmere area, there may some height allowance, in which case it comes down to how cheap the State will sell the building for and the cost of demo.

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I'm no expert on zoning, but

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I'm no expert on zoning, but my impression is that it's zoned for Business B - or not more than eighty feet tall, and about a third of its total current square footage. Even if not all the space can be productively re-employed, I suspect that remediating the asbestos and upgrading the building services will still yield at least twice as much usable space as tearing it down and starting from scratch.

The state doesn't care about the impact - it just wants to maximize its own gains on the sale. So it's not going to discount the building to pave the way for redevelopment. And it shouldn't have to. If Cambridge applied a special zoning measure to allow a developer to build to the same size and scale - or, given the savings generated by avoiding remediation, probably even to a somewhat smaller size and scale - everyone could still win. Imagine a new, gleaming, fifteen-story tower with street-level retail like a grocery store. The neighbors would get a nicer building with a better mix of uses. The state would get a big payout. The city would turn non-tax-generating property into a huge commercial space. What's not to love?

Alas, I don't see it happening. Zoning is a useful tool that often becomes a constraining jacket. Unless the city waves the zoning, developers will be incentivized to redevelop rather than to tear down and start over. And I don't see Cambridge Pols having that much courage.

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Zoning

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The City cannot "waive" zoning for an individual parcel. The owner can apply to the Zoning Board of Appeals (a statutorily created entity) for a variance from the zoning based, essentially, on the physical characteristics of the land (soil conditions, shape or topogrophy). Cambridge has actually become more stringent in applying these standards to variances in recent years. That parcel is zoned Business-B but I can't quite pin down what the hight restrictions are in such zones. Needless to say, however, they would not allow a building that tall as of right. It would be interesting to know whether the State obtained a variance when they built the building or whether there is some overarching law for state owned land that would have allowed them to ignore the zoning. Regardless, I wasn't suggesting that the State should sell the building for less than it is worth (probably not allowed to by law) but, rather, that the building may not be worth very much to a developer because of its limitations for reconfiguration. If all that can be done is a tear-down, with a limited height restriction on the redevelopment, its probably not worth all that much and the developer may get it cheap, thus allowing them to construct something nice after all.

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